TodayApril 17, 2022

Hybrids in the carpool lane

Why some people buy hybrids

Hybrids run cleaner and they get better mileage than their gasoline counterpart. Hybrids work best when they are under 25 mph, mainly being used to run around town. They also cost more, sometimes up to $7,000 more. There are groups that do the math and say that it will take at least 5 years to recoup the additional expense. Individual states want consumers to buy hybrids and are offering incentives to do so. The latest, and greatest, the incentive is being able to drive in the High Occupancy Lane (HOV) lane.

If you are traveling solo in your vehicle it can take you a couple of hours to travel to work. If you were in the HOV commuter lane, it might take you thirty minutes instead. How much is your time worth? In the Bay Area (San Francisco) in California, there are carpool lanes that allow you to go over the Bay Bridge for free if you carry three people in your car. There are people that allow perfect strangers to get into their car and ride over the bridge with them. Is that to save three bucks? Not at all. Its to save the hour and a half wait in line if you’re solo. But the $3 is a start on the road to recovering the extra expense.

According to Toyota spokesperson Halie Schmidt, the 2005 Toyota Prius is $21,515, including destination charges. A Prius buyer has a double income household of $94,600, certainly enough to purchase an even more expensive car. That’s two hard-working adults making about $22 per hour per person. Imagine being able to get to work an hour earlier, without having to pick up strangers in an HOV pool, or possibly work an hour extra.

Imagine a couple living in Concord, CA. One of them commutes to work in San Francisco every day, paying $3 to go over the bay bridge. They get the minimum prescribed two weeks off for holidays. Because they have a hybrid they are able to get over the bridge 1 1/2 hours earlier, allowing them to work one extra hour a day and still get home at the same time they did before they purchased their hybrid. This works out to an extra $22, plus the $3 that they didn’t pay to go over the bridge. At $25 per day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, they have made/saved $6,250. We didn’t even look at the amount of gas they saved or cleaner emissions.

This scenario is already going on in Virginia and Utah, but is this what the HOV carpool lanes were meant for? Carpools are meant for one reason; taking cars off the road. Allowing a hybrid to go through the carpool lane with a solo passenger defeat this purpose. Let’s take a longer view of this picture.

Let’s take the top of the hybrid pedestal, the Toyota Prius. In Consumer Reports real-world driving test, the Toyota Prius averaged 35 mpg, much less than the EPA average of 54 mpg. According to, the Toyota Camry, which sells over 400,000 cars annually, averages 27 mpg. If your commute is in a Toyota Camry with three people traveling 120 miles one-way you will use 4.4 gallons of gas for all three of you. If your commute in your brand new Prius is 120 miles one-way, you are using 3.4 gallons of gas and you get to use the carpool lane. The other two people will have to use their cars, and even if they are Prius it will add up to 10.2 gallons of gas for three hybrids versus 4.4 gallons of gas for a true commuter.

I’ve used California as an example for a reason. Remember that $3 that is saved by a hybrid going in a carpool lane instead of sitting, idling on a battery using no gas emitting little emissions? The state depends on those funds to finance their new bridge, the beleaguered bridge that is ending up costing more money than Bill Gates makes. AB2628, a Fran Pavley bill, says that they will limit the number of registered hybrids to 75,000 that can go into the carpool lane. Multiply 75,000 by $3 and that is $225,000 a day, or $1,125,000 a week, or $58,500,000 that bridges potentially will not receive in tolls.

The Federal Highway Administration supports HOV lanes as a way to keep people moving in urban and suburban areas. FHWA has proposed giving states the flexibility to allow single-occupant, low emission and energy-efficient vehicles on HOV lanes as an environmentally friendly way to maximize HOV capacity, reduce congestion and give more drivers a reliable trip, provided the lanes remain free-flowing. FHWA has advised states that allow solo drivers of certain alternative fuel and gas-electric hybrid vehicles on their HOV lanes that they must discontinue the practice if current federal law is not changed in the surface transportation reauthorization now pending in Congress.

Politicians probably mean well when they are trying to help the consumer, but sometimes they cut off their nose to spite their face. If they are using the fact that this is a clean car to let consumers go through, they could take all the pre-1982 cars off the road and really help California. The consumer buying the hybrid doesn’t need help, they haven’t asked for help. The demand for the hybrid is so high that manufacturers can’t make enough of them. Sure, like any good loophole, the consumer will take advantage of this law if it goes into effect, but ask any driver out on the highway and they would rather have fewer emissions, more miles per gallon, and fewer cars on the road. Were achieving that without allowing hybrids in the carpool lane.

Lou Ann Hammond

Lou Ann Hammond is the CEO of Carlist and Driving the Nation. She is the co-host of Real Wheels Washington Post carchat every Friday morning and is the Automotive, energy correspondent for The John Batchelor Show and a Contributor to Automotive Electronics magazine headquartered in Korea. Hammond is a founding member of the Women's World Car of the Year #WWCOTY, and board member of the Women in Automotive.

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